This story was written by Adam Frucci and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine as part of our 101 Masterpieces series. Download our new iPad app and get a free issue!
When Bill Cosby peeked out from behind the curtain at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium, he saw a performer’s nightmare. The 10,000-seat venue was the biggest the young comic had ever played, and minutes before showtime it was rife with empty seats.
January 27, 1968, wasn’t the best night for a performance. Cleveland was in the thick of a serious ice storm, making travel near impossible. The 30-year-old was about to record the most important show of his career, and no one was there to laugh.
With no other options, Cosby delayed the set until it seemed the last of the stragglers had arrived. The scene that followed is a staple of comedy lore. As he took the stage, a lone woman entered the hall and walked the length of the aisle, the click-click of each step reverberating through the room. Cosby stepped up to the mike, cupped his hands around it, and boomed, “You’re late.” It brought the house down.
The routine Cosby was about to perform—immortalized on the landmark album To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With—represented a turning point in his career. A full 16 years before The Cosby Show debuted, the performance would serve as the blueprint for the themes that would define his work: the father as a loving disciplinarian; the siblings who could switch from screaming at one another to plotting together at the drop of a hat; the confidence that no matter what conflicts and tragedies arise, the bonds of family will hold. In To Russell, Cosby didn’t just find his voice; he tapped into something deeper.
Bill Cosby grew up in the projects of the Germantown district of Philadelphia. His family crammed into a tiny apartment, where the four Cosby boys fought for every inch of space. As the years passed, Cosby’s father, a welder, fell into a deep alcoholism. By the time Cosby was 9, his father had abandoned the family for life in the Navy. Cosby’s mom, a maid, worked hard to make ends meet, but as the eldest of the boys, Bill picked up the slack. When he wasn’t shining shoes and pocketing cash from odd jobs, he was tending to his brothers. Once asked whether he had a happy childhood, Cosby responded, “It will be—onstage.”
Cosby had never seriously considered a career in comedy until college, when the part-time bartender noticed that his jokes were improving his tips. He began performing at small clubs, first in the Northeast, then around the country. By 1968, the comic had recorded five albums in five years and made waves costarring on the TV show I Spy. Cosby’s acting debut was especially remarkable. With James Bond films spinning box-office gold, I Spy was NBC’s attempt to capitalize on the action genre. The show followed two undercover agent—one was white and the other, black. The latter made it historic. The show turned Bill Cosby into the first African-American costar in a dramatic TV series, but it did it without making race a focal point of the plot. As Cosby told reporters, “People can see I’m a Negro. We don’t need to say anything else.”
Offscreen was another story. As the premiere approached, NBC execs openly worried about losing sponsorships and affiliate buy-ins. But when I Spy finally aired, only five affiliates refused to broadcast the series. Advertisers didn’t flinch. All of the real-life controversy surrounding Cosby seemed to have little impact on his act. At that time, Cosby was still trading in the sorts of observational humor most stand-ups were doing. His prominence made him a target, however. Within the black community, he was criticized for not confronting racial issues. The truth was, Cosby had made a conscious decision to ignore race and stick to topics that were universally relatable. But not because he wasn’t interested in challenging stereotypes. “A white person listens to my act, and he laughs, and he thinks, Yeah, that’s the way I see it too,” he said. “OK. He’s white. I’m Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alike. Right?”
Cosby’s material was evolving in other ways too. To Russell was the first of Cosby’s stand-up albums to fully embrace storytelling and characters over straight jokes. It showcased his talent for discussing his early life. And the album remains the purest distillation of what would become Cosby’s trademark style.
When Cosby finally stepped onto the Cleveland stage and looked into the crowd, he was a long way from the Germantown projects where he’d started. The first words he speaks on the record show him adjusting to the grand surroundings. “Is it all right up top there? Not you guys down here—I’m talking to the $1 people up there.” Cosby was about to perform comedy magic: making an unfathomable experience feel familiar. But first he wanted to make sure everyone had a clear view.
The structure of To Russell is an almost perfect look backward and forward at Cosby’s career. On the first side (originally released as a 12-inch record), Cosby tackles general subjects—sports, human nature, and his young family—over four short tracks. There’s little difference from his previous albums, though he displays an increased confidence. Cosby had worked hard at perfecting his craft, and he’d already won four straight Grammys for Best Comedy Album. Year after year, he’d beat out comedy heavyweights including Don Rickles, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and the Smothers Brothers. With To Russell, he’d continue his streak.
It’s impressive that this album isn’t the best-known or even the most popular of the 21 Bill Cosby has released—that would be 1982’s Himself. Still, critics seem to circle around it. In 2011, Spin declared To Russell number one on its list of the 40 Greatest Comedy Albums of All Time. And it’s had a clear impact on generations of comedians who’ve listened to it as a kid. Ray Romano said it changed his perception of what comedy could be. “This guy just appealed to me, this guy just talking,” Romano said. “It wasn’t setup and punch line; it wasn’t jokes—this seemed more organic to me.” From Chris Rock to Jerry Seinfeld, there are few comics who don’t cite Bill Cosby as a hero or, at the very least, an influence. And much of that can be traced back to the second half of To Russell.
Almost twice as long as any other bit Cosby recorded, the nearly 27-minute title track is as much a one-man play as it is a stand-up routine. Cosby performs the dialogue between him, his brother, and his father with nearly no commentary or asides. He masterfully sets up the apartment, a two-bedroom in Philadelphia public housing: “walls so thin you could hear a fly in the other room crawling on it.” He introduces his parents, building up his father as a huge, intimidating character before setting the scene: “the bedroom, pitch-black. There’s a small bed with two brothers in it. They’re both sleeping in what once was a crib. They’ve both outgrown the crib, the sides have been taken down. Now it is a bed.” It’s clear his family is poor, but that’s merely a small detail in the greater story Cosby sets out to tell.
The story he focuses on is instantly relatable: two young brothers forced to share a small space, bouncing between scheming together, lying to each other, and outright battle. When Cosby punches his younger brother in the eye, he quickly shifts from antagonist to friend, offering to rub it until it feels better. But when his brother threatens to tell their father, Cosby makes it clear: Russell fell out of the bed. Nobody hit anybody. It’s a perfect encapsulation of what it’s like to be a kid, trying to balance budding empathy with an inherent sense of selfish self-preservation—especially when it comes to avoiding the wrath of big, scary dad one room over, the same dad who threatens to “come in with the belt” if they don’t keep quiet.
At the mention of that belt, before the audience has a chance to get uncomfortable, Cosby breaks character, confiding that “we had never seen the belt, but we had heard about it. The belt was nine feet long, eight feet wide, and it had hooks on it, and it would rip the meat off your body if it ever hit you.” Cosby makes it clear that while dad might yell, he was all bark—the perfect comedic aside.
Talking about being a kid and getting in trouble sounds easy. Anybody can do it because everyone’s been there, right? But Cosby’s casual tone and the universal subject matter are deceiving, hiding an incredibly nuanced act that turned the experience of a poor, black, inner-city child into something familiar.
In the years to come, the depth of Cosby’s intention surrounding race would become a hidden hallmark of his work. While filming The Cosby Show, he employed a psychiatrist to ensure that his show tackled important issues without promoting negative stereotypes. He often replaced references to schools like Oberlin or Yale with Morehouse or Howard to put a spotlight on the nation’s finest black universities. And he filled the screen with references to African-American culture—from the art on the walls to the
theater veterans and jazz musicians whom he worked into the plotlines—all in the hopes of subtly shifting America’s views on race. In the process, Cosby became an ambassador for something bigger than just the black experience. As Karl Rove, an unlikely spokesman for The Cosby Show, told Fox News, “It wasn’t a black family. It was America’s family.”
For Bill Cosby, that carefully plotted trajectory traces back to one album. “This guy just talking” is what made To Russell a classic. More than the controversy or subject matter, what it truly showcased was a comedian hitting his stride and moving beyond what was expected of a stand-up. It was Bill Cosby proving that sometimes the funniest comedy is the simplest: a well-told story that everyone can relate to.